PALM BEACH, Fla. — While President Trump spent the past week at his Mar-a-Lago Club — golfing, tweeting, relaxing with family and talking to old friends — White House officials have been in quiet talks about revamping the West Wing operation and filling open posts ahead of what could be a politically difficult 2018.
The discussions come at a critical time for the administration. The president ended his first turbulent year in office with a major legislative victory — the Republican tax plan — but also suffered an embarrassing setback when the Republican candidate he endorsed in Alabama’s Senate race suffered an upset loss following allegations of sexual misconduct.
The unexpected defeat in the deep-red state narrowed the Republicans’ already tissue-thin majority in the Senate and underscored the challenges the White House faces as Republicans head into the 2018 midterm elections with a president facing approval ratings in the 30s.
The proposed changes, to be largely overseen by White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, mark another effort by the retired four-star general to further streamline and professionalize the White House operation to ensure the chaos of the administration’s inaugural year does not follow it into 2018.
The plan is to have Johnny DeStefano — a White House aide and Washington insider who worked for John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) when he was House Speaker — temporarily oversee four West Wing operations: the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Presidential Personnel and the Office of Public Liaison, a White House official confirmed Thursday.
DeStefano is likely to soon get help with this broad portfolio, which was first reported by Axios, with additional staffers coming in to run the offices but still possibly reporting to him, several people with knowledge of the move said.
“Under President Trump’s leadership, we worked together as a team to deliver for the American people and we look forward to building off this momentum in 2018,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
The White House is working to hire a top political strategist who would probably oversee Bill Stepien, the political director. Stepien has come under growing criticism that he is not up to the task of overseeing the White House’s political shop after a string of missteps in Alabama’s Senate race. Trump first endorsed Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who lost his party’s primary, and then endorsed Roy Moore, a controversial former judge accused of sexual misconduct toward young women, who lost the general election — all of which proved embarrassing for the president.
Even Stepien’s allies privately say he is in a difficult situation, arguing he is a smart man who is not fully empowered to run his shop unilaterally.
In recent weeks, the president has heard from a growing number of outside advisers, confidants and members of Congress, warning that the White House is poorly positioned to handle the tough 2018 political landscape. In a particularly tense meeting in the Oval Office last week that spilled into public view, Corey Lewandowski — a political consultant who served as Trump’s first 2016 campaign manager — vented his concern that the president was being ill served by everyone from his political operation to the Republican National Committee.
And this week in Palm Beach, Trump has been minimally staffed, especially around Christmas — a period during which he called outside friends and advisers, receiving another round of warnings about the upcoming political cycle.
The president has been informed by aides and friends that if he loses the House in 2018, not only would Democrats almost certainly begin impeachment proceedings against him but his entire legislative agenda would be imperiled, making any 2020 reelection bid far more challenging.
How nervous Trump is about the upcoming year is unclear. Several friends who have seen him at Mar-a-Lago in recent days described him as relaxed and smiling, cocooned in his manicured villa and seeming without a political worry.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he is concerned about his party’s 2018 prospects. “I’m a numbers guy — we could lose as many as 15 to 18 seats in the House,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are suggesting a lot more than that.”
But, Meadows added, he believes the president is looking in earnest to improve his political operation. “We certainly support the president’s effort to put forth a real political team to make sure the message is out there,” Meadows said.
One challenge is the West Wing does not have a shortlist of candidates to help with the political operation — a function, in part, of Kelly’s lack of deep political roots. Administration officials also said they were simply in the early stages of the process.
Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs, had informally suggested Ward Baker for the spot, according to two people with knowledge of the pitch. But Baker, a longtime Republican operative, has his detractors within the White House. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Under the proposed new structure, Short, who has a close relationship with Kelly, will not report to DeStefano, while continuing to oversee his own operation.
Short — who has national political experience from when he oversaw the political network of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch — has taken on a heightened, if unofficial, political role behind the scenes. White House officials said other aides have similarly taken on more political responsibilities. Short declined to comment.
“Policy is politics — his policy team probably gets an A,” Meadows said. “His policy team has probably been more interactive and engaged in the Senate and the House than really what I saw during the Obama administration.”
The role of communications director role in the Office of Public Liaison has been empty since earlier this month, when Kelly forced out Omarosa Manigault Newman — a former reality-television star who appeared on “The Apprentice,” which Trump hosted. The White House is working to fill the post, probably with an internal candidate.
Another department likely to see some change is the Office of Cabinet Affairs, said two people with knowledge of the discussions. Inside the White House, there is frustration with the office and its head, William McGinley, amid a growing sense that Cabinet secretaries are not doing a good job promoting the president’s agenda and that there is poor communication between the Cabinet office and the rest of the West Wing.
A White House official said there were no plans to move McGinley out of his position.
The disorganization surrounding coordination between agencies and the White House is something Kelly knows well from his time as homeland security secretary and something he hopes to remedy in the coming year. Several months ago, the president implemented meetings with his full Cabinet every two weeks in an effort to improve communication.
White House officials also pointed to how the West Wing worked with the Treasury Department, the Commerce Department and other relevant agencies to help pass the Republican tax plan, as an example of how the administration’s effort to advance its priorities has become more cohesive.
Kelly’s restructuring also comes as the White House is expecting a slew of departures — some welcome, others less so — around the one-year mark of Trump’s presidency.
Deputy national security adviser Dina Powell recently informed the White House she plans to leave in early 2018. Powell is leaving the administration on good terms and may continue to help advise on Middle East policy from the outside.
But other departures are more fraught. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has clashed with the president and is widely disliked in the West Wing, is also expected to leave early next year, with the White House already readying a plan for his exit.
Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, could also soon depart. Once considered to be Trump’s top choice to lead the Federal Reserve, he provoked the president’s fury after he publicly criticized Trump in the wake of the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally that left one woman dead.
Cohn was one of the public faces of the tax-bill effort, and following its successful passage earlier this month he made comments to colleagues that led them to believe his exit is imminent. Cohn, however, recently said at a public forum that he expects to be working in the White House three months from now and is focused on infrastructure, including overseeing a big meeting on the topic the first week of January.